The Bright Side of Boredom at work

4 types of positive behaviours that can result from boredom

Person staring out of an office window, seemingly bored
Photo: Johnny Cohen, via Unsplash

In management literature, boredom at work is often associated with unproductive behaviour. In psychology however, boredom is often seen as a signal to change things for the better. From daydreaming to helping others, to changing tasks. Researchers Carina Schott (Utrecht University) and Caroline Fischer (University of Twente) discuss positive coping mechanisms and share how managers can best facilitate those processes. Their findings have been published in Human Resource Management Review.

Boredom lurks in every job and could well increase in the future, says Carina Schott, who conducts research at the intersection of Public Management and Human Resource Management in the public sector. Automation means that people sometimes have more of a data monitoring task, while computers do part of the work. Humans monitor and intervene where necessary. That can get boring sometimes. At the same time, boredom at work is a taboo, especially among highly educated people. ‘I’m swamped with work’, that’s part of my job.

Boredom at work is a taboo, especially among highly educated people.

Helpful emotion

We may associate boredom with assembly line jobs or other repetitive tasks, but Schott and Fischer warn in their literature study that more white collar jobs will also have to deal with moments of boredom in the future. Caroline Fischer conducts research at the University of Twente into digitalisation, making mistakes and dealing with technology at work. However, this is no reason to get gloomy, because where the classic management books see boredom as stagnation, danger, or chance of error, psychology sees it differently. According to psychologists, boredom is “a functional emotion”, a helpful emotion, says Carina Schott. A complex emotion, too. How your boredom manifests itself can take all kinds of forms, but most of the time it is an unpleasant feeling that people want to get rid of.

Turn it into positive behaviour

And so they act, explains Schott. We have identified four types of positive behaviours that can result from boredom at work and what conditions or management styles are needed to fuel those positive outcomes.

Inspired by the work of Cummings et al. (2016), Schott and Fischer divide the coping mechanisms into three categories:

1.    Task unrelated thought: daydreaming, mind wandering
2.    Other task engagement: networking, looking up information, helping others, attending a training
3.    Change task engagement: delete or add something, organize work differently, job crafting, add gamification, try to make a task more fun

What can managers do? 

What are the ‘right conditions’  for positive behaviour resulting from boredom? Fischer and Schott outline six:

  • Job feedback: Seeing the results of your own work, feeling the meaning of your work, being able to place it in a larger whole.
  • Skill discretion: The chance to use your skills, to be creative, the chance to learn new skills
  • Team empowerment : Experiencing social support from your colleagues, having a clear understanding of your own role in a team.
  • Organizational slack: Having enough time and (financial) resources to carry out your work.
  • Generalistic Job description: A wide range of tasks and responsibilities, not limited too specifically.
  • Adhocracy culture: A culture where change is possible, where you are allowed to take risks, a flexible culture.

Further research

There are more resources that enable positive behavior after boredom. Schott and Fischer pretend not to be complete. In their theoretical paper they call for more research into boredom at work. According to the researchers it would, for example,  be very valuable to conduct research into the question of what happens when boredom is combined with challenging task demands such as time pressure. And whether this leads to results other than boredom in interaction with restrictive work demands such as physically and emotionally demanding work. Anyway, boredom does not have to be bad, there are "bright sides" to boredom and under certain conditions it can lead to good outcomes in the workplace.

Read the paper (open access),published in Human Resource Management Review: How to turn workplace boredom into something positive. A theoretical framework of the ‘bright sides’ of boredom

Boredom at work, postive behaviour and conditions
Coping strategies and best conditions at work.